Telling a shared history - Museums Association

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Telling a shared history

A century on from partition, Northern Ireland's museums are helping heal past wounds by telling history from both sides
A still from a Nerve Centre animation on the partition of Ireland Nerve Centre

“For the sake of the future we will share, we must be unshackled from the snares of the past.” These were the words of Irish president Michael D Higgins last year in the run-up to the anniversary of some of the most important milestones in Ireland’s struggle for independence 100 years ago.

The island is nearing the end of its Decade of Centenaries, an extensive programme to commemorate the tumultuous years between 1912 and 1922 that changed the course of its future. Events covered up to now include the rise of the country’s labour movement, the first world war, the Easter Rising, women’s suffrage and the Irish war of independence.

But one date has always loomed large on that calendar: 1921, the year that saw the partition of Ireland, the first parliament in Northern Ireland and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty – events that led to a vicious civil war and generations of sectarian violence.

1921 Key milestones
  • 3 May Two years into the Irish war of independence, the island of Ireland is divided into two self-governing territories, with six counties in Northern Ireland and 26 in Southern Ireland.
  • 24 May A general election takes place in Northern Ireland, with the Ulster Unionist Party winning more than three quarters of the seats.
  • 7 June The Northern Ireland parliament sits for the first time.
  • 11 July A ceasefire in the war of independence is called and talks begin between Irish and British sides.
  • 6 December The Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, providing for the establishment of a self-governing Irish Free State that will sit within the British empire. The treaty gives Northern Ireland’s parliament the option of opting out of the Irish Free State, which it exercises. In 1922, a year-long civil war breaks out in Ireland between pro-treaty and anti-treaty sides.

In the run up to these bitterly divisive anniversaries, Higgins has called on people from all sides to be open to hearing the perspectives, stories, memories and pain of the “enemy of yesterday” and create “a space for forgiveness”.

Heritage institutions north and south of the border have played a central role in creating that space throughout the Decade of Centenaries. So far, they have been largely commended for their sensitive and nuanced work, underpinned by a set of principles for ethical remembering developed in 2011 by the Community Relations Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.


But this year poses a unique challenge, particularly in Northern Ireland. In anticipation of the fraught nature of the 2021 anniversary, the UK Government set up a cross-border Centenary Historical Advisory Panel last year to ensure that the facts of the period are “understood in their fullest context”.

Last month it called for secret archives from the inception of Northern Ireland to be unsealed in a bid for greater transparency. The violence that has broken out in several Northern Irish cities in recent weeks is a stark reminder of the depth of division and fragility of peace in the nation.

Amid these tensions, National Museums NI (NMNI) has had to tread very carefully in planning its programming for 2021, says Hannah Crowdy, head of curatorial.

“People here have such different perceptions of this year,” she says. “For some unionist communities, it’s very much a year for celebration and at the other end of the scale there are people who see partition as a real travesty, an open wound that we’re still living with now.”

The principles for remembering
  • Start from historical facts
  • Recognise the implications and consequences of what happened
  • Understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist
  • Show how events and activities can deepen understanding of the period
  • Everything should be seen in the context of an “inclusive and accepting society”

These principles were developed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund in partnership with the Community Relations Council. The Heritage Fund used the principles to help decide who was awarded money to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland under the £1m Shared History Fund.

Balancing those viewpoints is a daunting responsibility for an institution that has a remit to serve all communities, but previous anniversaries in the Decade of Centenaries have provided valuable experience. NMNI’s 2016 commemorations of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, which hold significance for nationalists and unionists respectively, attracted some disapproval, although the organisation took this as a good sign.


“When you get criticism from both sides it is probably an indication that you’re  trying to do it right,” says Crowdy. “We’ve hopefully built a name for ourselves and given people a lot of confidence that we’re a safe and shared space where they can explore difficult and complicated issues.”

Weeping Window installation of ceramic poppies commissioned for the centenary of world war one at Ulster Museum in 2017. The artwork toured across the UK

The 2021 programme deliberately avoids marking key dates. At its heart is Collecting the Past, Making the Future, a large-scale exhibition-of-an-exhibition that will examine the role of the museum itself in helping understand cultural identity.

The exhibition at the Ulster Museum – with a fully realised online version in case of further Covid lockdowns – will offer a peek inside a museum storeroom; a work in progress that involves visitors in choosing which stories are told by the objects.

“We are very open about saying that these are just a choice,” says Crowdy. “Complex episodes are not necessarily resolved – these are the different stories we can tell. Hopefully it will make people feel they are part of the process.”

Crucially, a large part of the exhibition will be devoted to looking ahead to “where we’re going as a nation”, she says. The Making the Future element of the programme is part of an ongoing cross-border outreach scheme funded by the EU’s Peace IV fund, which has been running since 2014.


It has seen NMNI work closely with a number of partner organisations to engage with local communities, explore British and Irish identity and create a shared vision for future change.

One of the aims of the project is to develop a distributed Irish collection in which institutions across the island loan freely to each other, driven by the philosophy that “heritage shouldn’t have borders”. That sentiment has taken on particular meaning in the year that Britain severed its ties with the EU. “In a way it has made us even more determined to work together,” says Crowdy.

A Webley MK I revolver used in the war of independence in West Cork. The artefact is part of National Museums NI’s collection and is among the objects being considered for inclusion in the Collecting the Past, Making the Future exhibition
Discovery channel

This cross-border community engagement work will feed back to the museum floor. Participants will be able to showcase some of their work in a discovery room alongside the main exhibition space. They have also been asked to record their thoughts on various artefacts that are due to go on display, and the exhibition will feature a system where visitors can press a button to listen to those reflections.

“That’s a really important part of it,” says NMNI head of audience engagement, Aaron Ward. “I don’t think it can be just us doing it as a museum voice. A big part of Making the Future is to create the sense that this is an active dialogue with Northern Ireland. The more we can do that, the more hope is there for people that it’s not all about the past, it’s about the future too.”

A poster created for the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1968. The artwork is part of National Museums NI’s collection and could be part of Collecting the Past, Making the Future
Trusted voices

One of the dangers of marking a centenary of this nature is that it can reopen old wounds – something that has been apparent during other milestones in the Decade of Centenaries.

“Sometimes there’s so much conflict or pain, it all bubbles back up again,” says Ward. “That’s where the museum can play a role as a trusted voice. A large part of Collecting the Past, Making the Future is purely based on the truth of the collection, so we’re not trying to take a stand, we’re just offering people the truth of the objects and giving them a chance to reflect on what happened.”

As Northern Ireland’s demographics change, one of NMNI’s biggest long-term goals is ensuring it reaches audiences from every background. Although its 2021 programme deals with weighty subject matter, the institution is exploring new ways of making it accessible to more people.

“We’re using everything at our disposal to design a programme that is as broad as possible while also being impactful,” says Ward. “It will be broad, but not vanilla.”

Key to these plans are NMNI’s two outdoor museums, the Ulster Folk Museum and the Ulster American Folk Park. “They are quite good for heritage engagement that’s a bit more accessible, a bit lighter, a bit more experiential,” says Ward. As well as capitalising on the expected appetite for outdoor spaces in the wake of coronavirus, including the museums in the centenary programme is an opportunity to make them more current.

“Being able to talk about a very relevant theme, we’re hoping to give the outdoor museums an opportunity to play to their strengths and introduce a bit more dynamism to what they’re doing,” he says. Ward is hoping to develop immersive performances that will look at the impact of partition on everyday life.

“The folk museum is actually set in the 1920s, so it’s a perfect platform to talk about how life changed as a result of partition – the everyday things that we don’t really get a chance to talk about, like the border and currency,” he says.

The Ulster Folk Museum will show how life changed as a result of partition Discover Northern Ireland

“Everything we’ve learned over the past 10 years has led to this,” Ward says. “There are multiple layers, multiple audiences and multiple ways to get involved.”

Several strands of the Making the Future programme are led by Nerve Centre, a creative media arts centre that works with cultural organisations and schools to run events, activities and training for young people around digital skills.

Its projects have included Entwined Histories, which enables young filmmakers to produce short films based on events that happened in the corresponding year of the previous century, and the Creative Centenaries workshop programme and website, which offer in-depth creative resources on the history of each decade.

Challenging times

As a digital pioneer, Nerve Centre was well placed to adapt to the challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic and it has used those skills to explore new ways of engaging with communities.

“We’ve had to reinterpret how we can still bring people together,” says project manager Niall Kerr. “Over the past year we’ve pivoted to the online space and redeveloped all our programmes to be able to work with people and still bring them together in a way that they could connect to one another, but also bring archives, museums and items to them.”

The move has helped bridge distances and made the centre think about how participatory practice could work in future. “Now that we’re coming together online, that geographical barrier is completely broken down, so we have people from Donegal, Belfast, Monaghan, Fermanagh, all working together at the one time,” says Kerr. “It’s given us a renewed sense of what engagement is.”

Nerve Centre’s creative resources help interpret Ireland’s conflicted past. Pictured: a graphic novel on Irish revolutionary Michael Collins

Although working in a digital space brings greater accessibility, the distance and anonymity afforded by the internet means that inflammatory language and tensions can arise between participants.

“Generally speaking there seems to be a broad acceptance of exploring this type of view at the moment,” says Kerr. “But as the year develops and expands, and we start to get into the more divisive centenary events, it will be trickier and more managed in terms of how we tell those stories.

“But I think it’s important, as with all of the Decade of Centenaries programmes, that we never shy away from those stories. The work that we’ll be doing is acknowledging that these things did happen and it’s important for everyone to be able to understand them.”

Ultimately, Kerr hopes the 2021 programme will inspire people to feel positive about what they can do to shape the future. “It will be about encouraging people to look forward and try to imagine what’s coming next,” he says.

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